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James Ford Seale, a long-time member of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan who very nearly got away with murder, has died. After serving less than four years of three life sentences for the 1964 murders of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, both 19, Seale, 76, died in prison this Tuesday.
The Dee/Moore double murder was a classic horror story of the unreconstructed South battling against efforts to end segregation and racial terrorism. Even though Seale’s fellow murderer, Charles Marcus Edwards, gave the FBI a signed confession at the time and both men were arrested, a Mississippi justice of the peace promptly dismissed the case against the Klansmen with no explanation at all. Earlier, a local sheriff told Moore’s mother, who had reported her son missing, that Charles Moore was staying with relatives of the Moores in Louisiana — a lie.
The killings came during what civil rights workers called “Freedom Summer,” a period that may have seen the worst racial terrorism of the civil rights movement. When activists vowed to come to Mississippi that summer to undo segregation, White Knights chief Samuel Bowers ordered his members to carry out a series of “counterattacks” against “selected targets.” Six weeks later, White Knights abducted and murdered James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in a case that was later recounted in the movie “Mississippi Burning.” It was while dredging the Mississippi River near Tallulah for those three civil rights workers that the disfigured bodies of Dee and Moore were found — two more Southern black men in a group of murdered racial martyrs whose entire roster will never be known.
According to Edwards’ confession, he and Seale selected their victims because Moore had just been expelled from college for taking part in a student demonstration and Dee had lived in Chicago — and because they believed a wild tale about the two being part of planned black Muslim uprising. They abducted their victims from a rural stretch of highway in southwest Mississippi and took them into the Homochitto National Forest, where they tied them to trees and beat them unconscious. Then they tied heavy weights to their bodies and threw them in the river. When the bodies were discovered, one had been cut in half and the other decapitated.
The case was reopened in 2005 after Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., reported that Dee and Moore might have been killed in the national forest, meaning the government could bring federal charges. In 2007, Seale was convicted of two counts of kidnapping and one of conspiracy to kidnap. Last year, an appeals court refused to throw out the conviction.
Imperial Wizard Bowers, who himself served time in the Mississippi Burning case and another before dying in prison in 2006, led what at the time was the South’s most violent Klan group. His organization started its response to the Freedom Summer by burning 64 crosses in a single night throughout Mississippi. Before the summer was over, more than 80 people had been beaten, 35 shot at, five murdered and more than 20 black churches had been burned in Mississippi alone.